National Camera Exchange reaches the century-old business club


Mort Liss, owner of National Camera Exchange, in 1953 with a Polaroid Model 95 camera. John Liss, 69, Mort’s son and the grandson of the founder, still operates century-old National Camera.

Photo: National Camera Exchange,

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A century ago, Herman Liss, a Lithuanian immigrant, opened a tiny retail shop in downtown Minneapolis called “National Camera Exchange.”

There was a reason why the company was called an “exchange.”

“My grandfather was a gemologist and he was open to trade: cameras, jewelry, guns, anything,” said John Liss, owner of the company since 1978. “He … needed to make a living.”

Mort Liss, John’s father, took over the business in the 1930s. He was among the first local camera retailers to stock and sell revolutionary Polaroid cameras in the 1950s and 1960s.

And John Liss, 69, and his crew have been adept enough to dodge the big-box discounters and online retailers to survive as an independent in the digital photo age.

“They can match our prices but not our service” is the motto at National Camera.

“You still get free classes on how to use the equipment when you buy our cameras,” said Liss, who operates five suburban stores and employs 250 people. “We’re that last independent camera store standing for the amateur photographer. And we work with the pros, too.’’

It’s been a slow recovery from the Great Recession, said Liss, who added that there used to be around 30 camera shops. “The middle class, which we rely on, got hammered,’’ he said. “We’ve always had high-end customers, but millionaires are few and far between.”

On a related note, the Minneapolis Photo Center in the Warehouse District will host “100 Years of Cameras and Photography” from July 18 through Aug. 31. This free exhibit at the intersection of art and commerce will feature 100 cameras and 250 photographs in which National Camera figures prominently.

The highlights include: Jim Brandenburg’s first digital photograph published in National Geographic, along with the camera; Wing Young Huie’s print from his “Frogtown” series; Mark Jensen’s camera used to photograph both the construction 30-plus years ago and demolition of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

More information: www.mpls

Footnote to Minnesota’s kind-to-business acclaim

Minnesota has gotten national kudos lately for a rebounding economy and accommodating business taxes, according to national accounting firm KPMG:

Most recently, our fair state ranked sixth in CNBC’s annual “America’s Top States for Business,” climbing from 15th place in the same ranking in 2013. We bested the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin on CNBC’s 50-plus measures of competitiveness based on input from business, economic developers and local governments.

The KPMG study authors were particularly effusive about the “refundable” Minnesota R&D tax credit, which means unprofitable firms doing related investment spending could essentially get a cash refund from the state up to certain limits. However, that advantage disappeared this year after the 2013 Minnesota Legislature abolished the refundable credit.

Minnesota Life Science Alley, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies will be working hard at the next Legislature to reinstate the R&D credit.

And the chamber also wants Minnesota’s nominal 10 percent maximum corporate tax rate, one of the highest in the land, brought down, although a variety of deductions and credits can cut the state tax tab on a profitable company to half that.

“Minnesota has the third-highest rate in the nation, which is the ‘billboard’ rate [that the Wisconsin and Dakotas governors love to point out],” Beth Strinden Kadoun, director of tax and fiscal policy at the Minnesota Chamber said in an e-mail comment. “It was unfortunate back in 2013, when [the DFL-majority Legislature] increased corporate taxes by $424 million by eliminating many provision such as R&D refundability, foreign royalty dividend, etc. They did not take the opportunity to lower the corporate tax rate.”

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